In these last few days before the delegates of the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina choose their eighth Bishop, the tension is palpable. Little knots of people gather around coffee urns or in parking lots whispering, worrying, wondering. The Episcopal Church, as its name implies, takes on the personalities of its Bishops. So Diocesan elections tend to be anxious affairs. The next Bishop will set the course for this Diocese for many years to come, and thus this is a particularly anxious time for Upper South Carolina Episcopalians. Conservatives are hoping that the new Bishop will be an ally of South Carolina’s Mark Lawrence, who has already led his Diocese to withdraw from the Councils of The Episcopal Church, one step short of actual secession. Moderates are hoping that the new Bishop will continue on the course set by Dorsey Henderson, a middle way that seeks to engage, rather than withdraw. Liberals are just hoping that they can stay in the denomination that they have come to love, having given up any hope that a liberal will be chosen.
Before the Thanksgiving holiday break, the six candidates held two “walkabouts,” an exhausting ritual of parading before hundreds of delegates and their friends, giving two minute responses to dozens of questions, some relevant, some not, all intended to elicit clues to the way they would preside, if elected. The walkabouts produced some interesting, but not wholly surprising results.
The Reverend Canon Dr. Neal O. Michell defended his comparison of The Episcopal Church to a prostitute. The Very Reverend John B. Burwell defended his record on the ordination of women ( and that record includes a female associate on his current staff, The Reverend Dr. Hazel L. Wilkinson). The Reverend Jerre Stockton Williams, Jr. positioned himself as a frenetic Emergent Church pastor, comfortable in the theological muddiness of post-modernism. The Reverend David Thompson, who seemed stiff and wooden in his prepared opening remarks, proved deft and animated when he responded to questions extemporaneously. The Very Reverend Dr. Philip Linder was eloquent, calm and thoughtful in his responses. The Reverend W. Andrew Waldo was the most surprising of all, moving to the right of everyone but Michell and Burwell with his statement that he would consider the excommunication of a priest who blessed a same-sex union against his orders.
All of the candidates have gifts, from theological depth (Waldo, Thompson, Linder) to strategic planning (Michell), church growth (Burwell) and new paradigms for reaching the “unchurched” (Williams). Each of their gifts comes wrapped in a distinct package and none of them would be completely predictable. Given that, is it possible to predict who will win on December 12? Probably not, but here are my predictions (keeping in mind that I have predicted a Chicago Cubs pennant for two decades):
- Michell will start strong but fade quickly when conservatives realize that they cannot muster a majority with him
- Burwell will never get traction, in spite of his Upper South Carolina roots, and his desire to reach out to those who disagree with him
- Williams will start poorly but will pick up votes as the day goes on
- Thompson will start poorly, but will gain strength and could be a contender if he gets strong quickly enough
- Linder will struggle to gain a clergy majority, but he is the odds-on favorite with the laity, and all he needs to do is gain a few votes on each ballot
- Waldo will run strong in both houses and will be the clear early clergy favorite, but will struggle to get lay votes
So who will win? Beats me. But the Cubs will open the 2010 season at Atlanta on April 5, and will win the 2010 National League Pennant. Hot dogs anybody?